The Importance of Engaged Open Data Activists

January 10, 2014 8:38 am PST | Data as a Service, Effective Governing
David Eaves

This article originally appeared in Open Innovation: Winter 2014.

During my 2011 keynote at Open Government Data camp I talked about how the open data movement was at an inflection point. For years we have been on the outside, yelling that open data matters.  Now we are being invited inside and we have a great responsibility to be of service. Once you have world leaders talking about things like a G8 Open Data Charter you are no longer on the fringes-not even remotely.

Rob Kitchin, Professor of Geography at the National University of Ireland at Maynooth, recently wrote a list of open data critiques for his blog Programmable City. His post inspired me to remind the open data community – particularly the advocates – of our responsibility to take part in the debates around open data, right now. We need to engage in the discussions on a number of topics if we want open data to reach its full potential for effecting positive change in the world. Specifically, I will address two critiques that Professor Kitchin raised: using data to empower the less powerful and how to improve utility and usability of that data.

Why Improving Data Literacy Is Important

We must address the reality that data, even while open to all, can be used to by the most powerful to gain more power. There are definitely cases where data can serve to further marginalize at-risk communities. For example, we should never publish publicly the locations of women’s shelters or worse, the list of families taking refuge in them.

There are two things that give me some hope in this space. First, when it comes to open data, the axis of competition among providers usually centers on accessibility. For example, the Socrata platform (a provider of open data portals to government) invests heavily in creating tools that make government data accessible and usable to the broadest possible audience. This is not a claim that all communities are being engaged and that a great deal more work cannot be done, but there is a desire to show greater use, which drives some data providers to try to find ways to engage new communities.

Second, if we want to create a data literate society— and I think we do, for reasons of good citizenship, social justice, and economic competitiveness— we need the data first for people to learn and play with. One of the best ways to help people become data literate is to give them more interesting data to play with. We did not build libraries after everyone knew how to read, we built them beforehand with the goal of having them as a place that could facilitate learning and education.

There are also things that often depress me. I struggle to think of technologies that did not empower the empowered – at least initially. From the cell phone to the car to the printing press to open source software, all these inventions have helped billions of people, but they did not distribute themselves evenly, especially at first. 

So the question cannot be reduced to – will open data empower the empowered, but to what degree, and where and with whom? I’ve seen plenty of evidence where data has enabled small groups of people to protect their communities or make more transparent the impact (or lack thereof) of a government regulation. Open data expands the number of people who can use government information for their own ends, but that does not mean we shouldn’t be constantly looking for ways to ensure that it does not reinforce structural inequity. 

Promoting the Idea of Data as a Platform

Some of the issues around usability I’ve addressed above in the accessibility piece – for portals that genuinely want users, the axis of evolution is pointed in the right direction with governments and companies like Socrata trying to embed more tools on the website to make the data more usable.

I also agree with a point by Professor Kitchin that, rather than creating a virtuous circle, poorly thought out and launched open data portals will create negative “doomloops” in which poor quality data begets little interest which begets less data. However, the problem is bigger than that.

One of the main reasons I have been an advocate of open data was a desire to help citizens, nonprofits, and companies gain access to information that could help them with their missions. I also wanted to help change the way governments deal with their data, so that they can share it internally more effectively. I often cite a public servant I know who had a summer intern spend three weeks surfing the national statistical agency website to find data they knew existed but could not find because of terrible design and search. A poor open data site is not just a sign that the public can’t access or effectively use government data;  it usually suggests that the government’s employees can’t access or effectively use their own data. This is often deeply frustrating to many public servants.

Thus, the most important outcome created by the open data movement may be that government organizations, save for those in the intelligence community, realize that they are not comfortable with using data to drive decisions.  Getting governments to think about data as a platform (yes, I’m a fan of government as a platform for external use, but above all for internal use) is, in my mind, one way we can enable public servants to gain better access to information. Adoption of this principle will also, in many cases, obviate the need for costly solutions from huge vendors (like SAP and Oracle), whose $100 million dollar implementations often silo off data, rarely produce the results promised and are so obnoxiously expensive it boggles the mind. 

The key to all this is that open data cannot be something you slap on top of a big IT stack. I try to explain this in my blog post It’s the Icing Not the Cake about how Washington DC was able to effectively launch an open data program so quickly (which was, apparently, so effective at bringing transparency to procurement data the subsequent mayor rolled it back). Governments need to start thinking in terms of platforms if – over the long term – open data is going to work. And it needs to start thinking of itself as the primary consumer of the data that is being served on that platform.

My main point is this: let’s not play at the edges and merely define this challenge as one of usability. It is a much bigger problem than that. If we get it wrong, then the big government vendors and the inertia of bureaucracy win. If we get it right, we could potentially save taxpayers millions—while enabling a more nimble, effective, and responsive government.

I try hard to be critical advocate of open data – one who engages the risks and challenges posed by open data. I’m not perfect and balancing these two goals – advocacy and a critical view – is not easy, but I hope it is how I hope all of us in the open data movement see our role.

David Eaves
David Eaves

David Eaves is a public policy entrepreneur, open government activist and negotiation expert. He writes on open innovation, public policy, public service sector renewal, open source and network systems. He posts several times a week on his blog, publishes regularly in various forums including TechPresident, the Toronto Star, and written numerous chapters such as his piece in the O’Reilly Media book on Open Government. He is also frequently invited to speak on these issues, as well as on open government, policy making, negotiation and strategy, to executives, policymakers, and students. You can find a list of David’s past and upcoming keynotes and speeches here.

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